The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

This classic text is unlikely to have been read by Donald Trump. Many affluent men perceive women as trophies to be won, but the President of the United States is particularly prone to judge a book by its cover. However, Wolf shows that this cultural trend has an economic base.

We all know about the injustice of the gender pay gap. We all appreciate that men typically shirk their share of chores. But lots of us forget the full extent of the pressure exerted on females to look their best. This force breeds unnecessary competition. Furthermore, it means that substantial discretionary spending is wasted on keeping up appearances.

Perhaps Wolf was slightly too passionate at times. Maddened by the social disasters of anorexia and unnecessary plastic surgery in the United States, she did make an unfortunate comparison with the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the author did produce a compelling argument. She was generous towards other feminists and paid a warm tribute to Virginia Woolf:

“Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own had a vision that someday young women would have access to the rich forbidden libraries of the men’s colleges, their sunken lawns, their vellum, the claret light.”


The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice

Radio can take the listener to troubling places. The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice is a journey worth taking. Combining the psychological and the political, the play raises existential questions. A dark humour can be discerned, but a seriousness is never absent.

It is no coincidence that Albert Camus wrote La Peste in the same historical period. Both writers were trying to come to terms with the ruin of Europe. They were concerned with what fascism had done to people. Neither thinker was dogmatic, but both individuals were unable to leave politics to politicians.

MacNeice was a poet who understood that certainty could be a terrible thing. His ambivalence was one of his strengths. And yet he could not feel isolated from the political fray. He knew that leaving history to its own devices could cost the world. His message resonates in the era of Trump, Brexit and casino capitalism.

How to be both by Ali Smith

”       hello all the new bones
hello all the old
hello all the everything
to be
made and
both ”

Style and substance can be a formidable combination. In literature, most novelists achieve some kind of a balance between the two. However poetic writers can be light in terms of their content because their readers will make allowances for them. This text of two halves tests this theory to its limits.

The first narrative is situated in the Google Maps present of Sky News weather presenters. It is quite a moving tale, which bubbles with verisimilitude. The reader is never bored, but occasionally a feeling of being manipulated does arise. Gratitude for the entertainment provided does derive primarily from the style of Smith.

The second story about an artist totters over the brink. Pretentiousness oozes from the text, while ennui starts to flow from a slackening pace. Art about art is not original and there seems to be some special kind of credibility gap. Nevertheless, Smith perseveres gamely to the end, secure in the faith which her remarkable style lends her.




T.S. Eliot: a Short Biography by John Worthen

This odd book about an odd man employed an eccentric technique to generate a thought-provoking biography. John Worthen leaned heavily on the diaries of Virginia Woolf to defend the reputation of her celebrated friend. Her antipathy to the wife of T.S. Eliot means that the great poet has a really sympathetic portrayal.

Relying too much on the brilliant Woolf as a witness has its risks. Her own instability means that she may not have been the most consistent judge of character. And her literary elitism could have led her to a bias towards the conservative American. Further, she might well have been afraid, jealous or resentful of others who occupied the sick role she shared.

Fortunately, Worthen was aware of the limitations of his effort. Like Eliot, he knew that “No one can be understood.” As a result, those who appreciate poetry can turn back to fragments of the poems:

“And I…must borrow every changing shape

To find expression- dance dance

Dance like a dancing bear,

Whistle like a parrot, chatter like an ape;

Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance.”

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Mario Cuomo

Jeremy Corbyn has clearly realised the power of the poem. At Glastonbury, he harnessed Shelley to inspire his audience. While the Conservative Party has been slow to form an awkward coalition with the DUP, the Labour leader has been quick to communicate his message of hope with large numbers of people.

It is uncertain if Corbyn will ever ascend to the summit of politics in the UK. However, he has already confounded a great many of his critics. Along the way, he has revealed a love of reading. His passion for Joyce made several people sit up.

If governing is a prosaic activity, does it have to be a fraudulent one? Is it possible for politicians to craft narratives which will take us to a fairer future? Will we continue to be led by Machiavellian monsters like Trump and Putin? The art of political studies is to live in the world of the possible. This does not mean we should be cynical, defeatist or neutral. Nonetheless, it does imply we must avoid making predictions.

Choruses from The Rock by T.S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot can be perceived as an elitist poet. His work often seems remote from the mundane aspects of life. This is in part because of his explicit religious commitment. However, the complex language which the poet employed is also something of a barrier to the understanding of many readers.

Nevertheless, one of his remarkable creations breaks with the conventions of his famous poems. This specific work was composed during the Hungry Thirties. Eliot might not have endured the horrors of unemployment, but by 1934 he had been involved in sectors like publishing and banking. These prosaic experiences could have helped him to appreciate some of the anguish associated with the Great Depression.  He wrote:

“The lot of man is ceaseless labour,

Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,

Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.”

Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice

“The New Year comes with bombs, it is too late

To dose the dead with honourable intentions:

If you have honour to spare, employ it on the living;

The dead are dead as Nineteen-Thirty-Eight.”


This remarkable poem ultimately deserves the status of a masterpiece. It is able to mix the personal with the political. Written during the course of an international crisis, it conveys the complex contradictions of the time.

The poet is unafraid to tackle the perplexing issue of nationalism. In addition, he mentions great philosophers like Plato, Hegel and Marx. However, he avoids making excessive commitments to any specific school of analysis. Freud gets a fleeting look in, but the writer is prepared to accept the seeming inadequacy of the tools at his disposal.

It is important to note that the poet is unafraid of the vulgar, the profane and the ordinary. He does not dwell on a cloud or preach from a tower. His sympathies, his fears, and his capacities are tilted towards the world that there is.